FILM / The McGuffin inheritance: Patriot Games

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The Independent Culture
Patriot Games, the new Jack Ryan thriller, suffers from a common enough genre ailment, elephantiasis of the McGuffin, but I've rarely seen a worse case. Is it fatal? Only to the audience's patience and enjoyment.

The McGuffin is the thing that explains why the baddies want to do what it is they're doing, kill all the blond bartenders in Buenos Aires or whatever. Hitchcock's discovery was that you need spend very little time on the McGuffin itself. It makes the film possible, but it's not what the film's about.

For many years though, film-makers could use a different form of shorthand, by making the baddies Russian agents. It turns out that the baddies are Boris and Ivan McGuffin, and there's really no more to be said. They have no respect for human life.

More recently, things have become complicated. It seems that Russians are not all the same, and some of them may have respect for human life after all. In The Hunt for Red October, the film that introduced Tom Clancy's CIA hero Jack Ryan to film audiences, Sean Connery played a Soviet who defected to the West, bringing the new, state-of-the-art Russian submarine, the Vassily McGuffin, with him.

But by now, things are getting desperate for the genre. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and the fears that thrillers play on, by exaggerating and then assuaging them, have also changed beyond recognition. The world order is no longer static, even deceptively, and by the time you've hitched your melodrama to the headlines, they've turned inside out. Nothing smells worse than last year's political McGuffin.

No wonder, then, that when he used a political McGuffin, Hitchcock made sure it wasn't too definite. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, for instance, there is an assassination of a foreign head of state to be foiled, but we never know which country is involved. As a result, the story could be filmed twice, in the Thirties and the Fifties, with the McGuffin unaltered.

Patriot Games takes its cue from The Man Who Knew Too Much, with Jack Ryan foiling a kidnap attempt while on holiday in London with his wife and daughter, and the family becoming terrorist targets themselves. The new Jack Ryan film, directed by Phillip Noyce, actually features a new Jack Ryan, Harrison Ford replacing Alec Baldwin. It doesn't make a lot of difference, in fact, since Jack Ryan the CIA nice guy is something of a cipher. Baldwin played him as a smooth cipher, Ford as a slightly grainier cipher, but that's about the extent of the change.

There's no mystery about the baddies in Patriot Games; they're Irish Republicans. It's Paddy McGuffin and friends. But having committed themselves in this way, Clancy and the screenwriters (W Peter Iliff, Donald Stewart, Steven Zaillian) have to start back-pedalling immediately. This isn't the IRA, you see, this is a ruthless breakaway group, with no respect for human life. Not only that: no respect for public relations, either.

The script never recovers from this hedging of bets, wanting to hang its fantasies on Irish politics but not willing to alienate American audiences with an anti-IRA message. It flounders from one absurdity to another, with results that are hilarious when they aren't insulting. There is as much political realism in the film as there is in Naked Gun 2 1/2, except that in Patriot Games it matters.

The screenwriters must have come to envy Ian Fleming, who soon detached his fantasies of espionage from a realistic context. Making a fat man with a cigarette holder and a white cat responsible for all the evils of the world may be a cop-out, but it's not one that you have to go on and on trying to shore up and justify till you're sick of the whole thing.

Jack Ryan foils the breakaway group's attempt to kidnap a member of the Royal Family, Lord Holmes (James Fox), who manages the neat trick of being a cousin of the Queen Mother's without being, apparently, a cousin of the Queen's. In the process, Ryan kills the brother of Sean Miller (Sean Bean), who is thereafter motivated not by ideology but the need for revenge. He becomes in effect a breakaway from the breakaway group.

The convincing forms for Miller's revenge would be an obsession with killing Ryan - you killed my brother, I'll kill you - or with destroying his wife and child: I'll show you what bereavement is like. Miller, usefully for the screenwriters, wants both.

It is never explained why Richard Harris as an IRA propaganda chief must go stumping round the States raising funds, when so much comes free. The new breakaway group has all the equipment it could possibly want, including a training camp in North Africa, and also deep-cover moles dating back many years in Burlington Arcade and elsewhere.

Somehow the CIA is involved in all this. The terrorists are targeting the British Royal Family, but as far as Patriot Games is concerned, the CIA is the United Nations with zero accountability and unlimited firepower. No excuses are needed.

Private and public realms end up equally distorted by the film's queasy workings. Anne Archer has a lovely crinkly smile, and when suffering from nasty facial bruising in hospital there's a striking likeness to Susan Sontag, but much less of the story is told from her point of view than from Doris Day's in the second Man Who Knew Too Much. She is no more than a flesh McGuffin, the fact of her being pregnant just another turn of the screw.

In one scene, Patriot Games shows how a film can be laughably far from reality and still, quite without meaning to, hit a terrible nerve. On Jack Ryan's say- so, the CIA gets the SAS to massacre the breakaway group in its North African training centre. We see the violence in thermal images relayed by satellite. The mixture of high technology and 'bloodless' killing (bloodless from the point of view of the killers), plus desert setting, irresistibly recalls the 'turkey shoot' aspect of the Gulf war. It's curious that in Patriot Games actual responsibility for this bloodshed should lie with the SAS, not the Americans who arrange it.

When the CIA asks Ryan if he's sure he's pinpointed the right desert camp he hesitates. This is presented as heroic, though it seems a little less than that. All his boss wants is his 'best guess' saying: 'Tell me one thing in life that's absolutely certain.' And Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan replies in a line of immortal kitsch, 'My daughter's love'. No one laughs, on screen at any rate, and it turns out that his best guess is good enough to justify mass murder. The Man Who Knew Too Much isn't even one of Hitchcock's best films, but it's a long way down from that level of achievement to The Man Who Knew Nothing For Certain In This World But His Daughter's Love.

(Photograph omitted)

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